Lanford Wilson’s Ozark Roots

October 7, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
Correspondent Spencer Michels reports on Lanford Wilson's new play set in the Ozarks, Wilson's boyhood home.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Ozarks in Southern Missouri is the setting for many of the plays of native son Lanford Wilson. The Ozarks, as he puts it: Lakes and rivers, great fishing, the whole countryside so beautiful in the spring it could break your heart. Dogwood trees, red bud, dairy farms, the grass so green it hurts your eyes.”

The words are from “Book of Days,” Wilson’s newest play, which has been playing at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright was invited to come home to his native state to do this play, after living and working in New York most of his career. He and Marshall Mason, who directed “Book of Days” and nearly all of Wilson’s works over the past 34 years, are fine-tuning a drama they believe is among Wilson’s most profound.

Sitting next to Marshall Mason on the set of “Book of Days,” Wilson explained why he reaches back into his own boyhood in the Ozarks to talk about hypocrisy, bigotry and values in modern-day America.

LANFORD WILSON, Playwright: I’m really drawn back here. I often am, and in my thoughts and dreams. And maybe it’s just youth. Maybe it’s just that you go back to your childhood and the things you were taught, and go over… was that right, was that correct? Did I learn that? Who told me that?

SPENCER MICHELS: Director Mason knows Wilson’s writing and mind so well he often speaks for the playwright.

MARSHALL MASON, Director: The thing about the Midwest, the Midwestern people, is that it is the heartland of America and, in that sense, it is the crossroads of all kinds of things: American values and hopes and dreams and aspirations and fears.

SPENCER MICHELS: In 1969, Wilson, seen on the left here, and Mason, co-founded the experimental Circle Repertory Theater in New York, which they consider the beginning of off-off-Broadway.

SPENCER MICHELS: What distinguishes off-off- Broadway from just off Broadway?

LANFORD WILSON: Well, off-off Broadway you don’t get paid. You don’t get anything. You do it all yourself.

MARSHALL MASON: It was created out of the need from the artists to express themselves, and at that point, Broadway was almost exclusively English: Harold Pinter and John Osborne, these guys were occupying the Broadway theaters. Off Broadway had become very commercial. It was running “Little Mary Sunshine” and “The Fantastics,” and that sort of thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: Broadway wannabe almost?

MARSHALL MASON: That’s right. A young American playwright had no place to go, and so we went to the little coffee shops – you know — down in the village. Most of it was down in the village.

SPENCER MICHELS: Was this the genesis of the Circle Repertory Theater?

LANFORD WILSON: It was the genesis of every black box theater, every second- stage theater that is in all of the regional theaters. None of that existed until off- off Broadway.

SPENCER MICHELS: Circle Rep produced plays for 27 years before closing three years ago. Among its hits was Lanford Wilson’s “Talley” trilogy, including “The Fifth of July,” seen here in a television adaptation about a gay veteran whose legs were blown off in Vietnam. “Talley’s Folly,” which later played on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980; it’s the story of a romance between Sally Talley, an Ozark woman, and Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant from St. Louis who is despised by Sally’s family. On stage alone, Matt, played by Judd Hersh, makes the Ozarks setting universal.

MATT: Now, you would think that in this remote wood, on this remote and unimportant, but sometimes capricious river, world events wouldn’t touch this hidden place; well, such is not the case.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri 62 years ago, and baptized in a black church. He says he remembers a cafe on the main street, much like this one, that some of his relatives patronize to this day. 82-Year-old cousin Mayfield Wilson, a dairy farmer, remembers when Lebanon had a thriving cheese plant, which plays a key role in the drama.

MAYFIELD WILSON, Lanford Wilson’s Cousin: They hauled it in here in ten-gallon cans and trucks, had a route. They would go around to the farmers and pick it up, and they made cheese out of that milk.

ACTOR: The real cheddar taste, it’s no relation to 90 percent –.

SPENCER MICHELS: Using strong, rich dialogue, and memorable characters, Wilson in “Book of Days” rhapsodizes on the glories of true, aged cheddar cheese.

ACTOR: It’s pungent, sharp, it’s a little sour, and has this deep, deep flavor with a long, really sharp, but mellow aftertaste. That’s the sign of a good cheese…the aftertaste. (Laughter)

SPENCER MICHELS: “Book of Days” is the story of a nasty murder that the town wants to cover up. The owner of the cheese plant dies in what looks like a hunting accident. But when Ruth, the bookkeeper, discovers foul play, the citizens in this apparently religious community ignore her.

RUTH: Conroy, have you done anything to this gun?

CONROY: What do you mean?

RUTH: You didn’t clean it or anything like that.

CONROY: No ma’am, I didn’t want to handle it any more than I had to if you want to know.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ruth struggles alone for truth and justice, much like Joan of Arc, whom she plays in a small theater production of “St. Joan.” Wilson has cleverly woven the two heroic characters together. The townspeople also don’t want to hear about how the plant owner’s son, an ambitious would- be politician, is cheating on his wife. The wronged wife tells the town minister she wants an apology.

WRONGED WIFE: I want him to say to me and to Christ and to our congregation that he is sorry for it.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Reverend Bobby ignores the truth, and turns the tables on her in order to protect her husband, counseling her to keep her mouth shut.

REVEREND BOBBY: I won’t have you stand in front of this congregation and say to them that you’re not a fit wife, Louann. I won’t have you humiliate yourself like that. (Audience moans)

SPENCER MICHELS: Religious scenes abound in the play, like this baptism of the suspected murderer that the reverend performs before his rapt church. Wilson, a Baptist himself, is no fan of fundamentalist religion in the 90’s. And he holds strong political views, rooted in the 60’s; he’s worried about where America is going in the post-Vietnam era. He has said he doesn’t want to be didactic or preachy in his writing, but in “Book of Days,” he makes very clear his opinions, letting the chips fall where they may.

LANFORD WILSON: In this one instance I don’t mind being didactic so much. I think there are things that you have to take a stand for or against sometimes, and I am really sort of shocked and appalled by some of the things that are happening. I grew up a Baptist. And I think it’s a religion that embraces so much and I just hate to see someone, something so close to baptism… being divisive and saying “I hate this.” That would never have said when I was… when I was baptized, when I was growing up.

SPENCER MICHELS: Many of Wilson’s plays explore the aftermath of the Vietnam era and the sexual revolution, sometimes with a hint of irony.

ACTRESS: We did it for them, for our children and our children’s children.

ACTOR: I heard that.

ACTRESS: Slopping barefoot and naked through the rain and freezing mud at Woodstock. For what? To make our country free, liberation. And look at what this perforated generation has done with it. It’s treason.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wilson is angry that much of the idealism of that period is gone, though he acknowledges the hedonism of the era.

SPENCER MICHELS: Why is that era so important to you, and why should it be so important to the audience?

LANFORD WILSON: What we thought this country was going to be when… when a people’s movement managed to end that war and change everything, we dreamed of such a much better country. It was the most angelic time this country has ever had.

MARSHALL MASON: It was a spiritual time and a time of great idealism, and that idealism – you know — really took root among the young people, particularly, and the idea that we could make a difference in the future of our country and in the future of the world.

SPENCER MICHELS: Don’t you essentially think people have forgotten that era? And it seems to me that you are bemoaning that fact, that it’s sort of lost.

LANFORD WILSON: Yeah, I don’t see anything. There is not a single remnant in the young people today; there’s not one remnant of that idealism.

MARSHALL MASON: Kids don’t read newspapers anymore or watch news on television. They don’t care about the world. They’ve given up on it. It’s like it’s beyond them and hopeless. And if this play does anything, it’s about the idea that maybe an individual needs to stand up and really fight for what is right, in spite of the consequences, because, of course, this woman pays dearly for her beliefs.

SPENCER MICHELS: This play ends very bleakly, no hope.


SPENCER MICHELS: Are you…are you that…

LANFORD WILSON: I didn’t know it. I didn’t know it until I saw the play and said, “Shoot, this is pretty bleak, isn’t it?”

MARSHALL MASON: And I think this play really looks at America at the end of the century, and it’s saying, “we continue to change, and the direction that we are changing in should give us some cause for alarm;” that we’d better really rethink what our values really are. And the value of the individual needs to be reassessed here in America towards the end century.

SPENCER MICHELS: “Book of Days” then moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Wilson and Mason are hoping for a New York run after that.